Garden Sensors+App: Connecting or Disconnecting the Gardener?

With the arrival of spring, the gardening industry kicks in to try to sell us gear.

This week there is buzz about, among other things, Edyn, a solar powered networked sensor probe for your home garden.  There are other similar products, I’m using Edyn as a good example, better than average, and representative of current trends.

As they say, “welcome to the connected garden”. Basically, I think this device responds to the same market pressures as faced by Moleskine with basically the same technological response. As Tim Moynihan remarks in Wired “If it doesn’t interact with your phone, it’s a non-starter. If its functionality can be replicated with an app, it’s probably DOA.”

I discussed this technological response in the case of blank books yesterday. Today, I have a much stronger, visceral reaction.  (I think I’m ore emotional about gardening than blank books.)

What is it?

Edyn is a solar powered stake with a suite of sensors and a wifi connection to an iOS app. It covers about 250 sq ft (3 m sq) – so even my tiny yard would need dozens of them for full coverage, for example.

What does it do?

The device sticks in the (top) soil (only dozen cm or so deep)  and delivers “real time” sensing, feeding readings in a stream to the Edyn app. (Where does the data really go?  I’m not sure.  What is the sample rate?  I dunno.)

As I understand it, the Edyn iPhone app has displays to track conditions. It also connects to databases for suggestions about plant selection, soil amendment, and watering. In the future it will connect to (proprietary) automated valves, so the app can manually or automatically control the watering.

This is all fine, though I have to wonder if there is much reason for this product to exist.

It’s not clear that these services are particularly useful. Casual gardeners scarcely need this much information, and industrial gardens already have this information.

In any case, why do you want continuous real time monitoring? Soil properties do not change rapidly, as far as I know.   Also, we are only interested in broad bands of acceptable conditions, not fiddly wiggles in data. One reading per year is usually fine.

The main things you want to track are moisture and maybe pests. Edyn is way overkill for monitoring soil moisture (which is usually obvious). If Edyn can track hidden disease and pests, that would be cool but not necessarily better than eyeballs.

The other “valuable” services are even less useful. What gardener needs a phone app to tell her what plants to grow, or what amendments to make to the soil? You can see “vital information, insights, database analysis, and trends”. All that stuff is widely available, and none of it is as precise as a recommendation for a specific square meter of your garden.

I also note that the real time stream of data is a terrible guide to most of these recommendations. For example, in the case of plant selection, I assume they probably ignore most of the data. Plant selection needs to be based on the long term conditions, growing season, patterns of sun and shade, annual rainfall patterns, and so on. Hour by hour changes are not in any way useful.  This is even more true about soil amendment, which is a slow and steady, season by season process. Please don’t add fertilizer based on a few hours data. Sheesh!

Bottom line:   This device probably isn’t worth the money unless you are a serious “competitive” gardener, trying to make money or win prizes. And even then, I doubt you need most of the features.

Technical gripes and suggestions

The app seems to be available for iOS only. Sigh. How many times do I have to complain about this?

From the web information, it’s not clear where the data goes. I’m betting it goes to a proprietary “cloud” service. It also isn’t clear if I can get the data out of the system so I can do my own analysis.   It would be easy to let us have it, so I hope they will.

As I have indicated, you really need long term data.  So you should leave the device in the same spot for a decade or so, to create a meaningful profile.  I don’t think the device is designed to last that long, and I would be surprised if the data service is designed for such long term campaigns.  This wouldn’t be difficult technically, but may be infeasible for business reasons.

For that matter, a published API to let me use the data in other apps would be nice. It would also open the possibility of third party apps, which would help the company.

Philosophical Gripes

Honestly, I don’t want my garden to be “connected”.  At all.

The entire point of gardening is to touch and interact with Mother Earth, to pay attention, and to work together with nature to bloom and grow. It’s not a competition.

The most important thing you learn in the garden is to pay attention. Unlike video games or the Internet, things happen slowly, so you have to come back every day. There is also much that is not in your control, and it certainly isn’t about you. You may take pleasure in your garden, but it isn’t impressed with your unique genius. Humbly pay attention.   Get it?

The information app attempts to replace what gardeners know with heuristics. I’m sure you can do this—much of the expert knowledge has been around for centuries—but why do you want to? Taken to the extreme, the human is reduced to boring labor, following directions of the automated system. Why do you want to do this?

Worst of all, to the degree that you are paying attention to the stock ticker of data and chatter of recommendations and “trends”, you are not attending to the garden itself. And you are thereby disconnected from your own garden. You are missing the best part.

In the effort to sell you “a connected garden”, they are actually disconnecting you from it.

This sure ain’t for me. No thanks.

Add this to the “inappropriate touch screen” file.  it’s not a good idea to slap a touchscreen (mobile) on everything.


Apropos of nothing specific:  found in my garden last year, crazy big fungus.  I call him, ‘Eric’.

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